Atlantic Cities

Class-Divided Cities: Atlanta Edition

This is the fifth of a series of posts that explore the class divides across America's largest cities and metros. Using data from the American Community Survey, each post explores the geography of class within a large city and metro area. For a detailed description of methodology, see the first post in the series.

The map above shows a clear class divide which splits the city of Atlanta nearly in half. The creative class lives in the areas that are shaded in purple, the red areas are primarily service class, and the blue are working class. Each colored space on the map is a Census tract, a small area within a city or county that can be even smaller than a neighborhood.

The purple (creative class) areas dominate the entire Northeast of the city, from downtown up through Midtown, including adjacent Georgia Tech and Virginia Highland out to Buckhead in the North and Rockdale in the West. 

The purple blotch in the southwest is Cascade Heights, an upscale black suburban neighborhood and the home to Spellman College, Morehouse College, and Clark Atlanta University, which make up the largest contiguous consortium of African higher education in the United States.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, described the historical transformation of Atlanta's class geography in an email conversation with me:

Atlanta developed as a railroad town. One of the shifts that's been going on for 20 years now is the conversion of all of the old warehouses and factories where the working class used to work into lofts lived in by creative class types. The Beltline – a 22 mile loop of mostly abandoned rail that's being redeveloped into a park and transit system, makes approx. 6000 acres of underused industrial land accessible for redevelopment – mostly aimed at the creative class. While it isn't directly displacing working class neighborhoods, it is reinhabiting working class workspaces.

The service class occupies the entire Southwest of the city out to Adams Park and Lakewood Heights. Dunham-Jones notes that this area is also a center for musical creativity, and a focal point for Atlanta's world-class hip-hop scene. These neighborhoods turn up consistently in hip-hop and rap songs, according to a mapping study by one of her students.

The second map (to the right, click for larger image) shows the class geography for the entire Atlanta metropolitan region, which extends to Carrollton and Griffin to the south and Marietta and Roswell to the north. The metro is America's ninth largest, with roughly 5.3 million people and an economic output of roughly $284 billion [PDF].

As the map shows, the creative class is clustered in the center of the metro, from downtown Atlanta to Marietta and Roswell in the North, with some pockets or islands mainly throughout the upper half of the metro. The service class (red areas) surround the creative class districts at the metro's periphery, with the more concentrated working class districts (blue areas) mainly pushed far out to the metro's Western and Southern peripheries.

The next two maps are interactive: Click on a tract to see its percentages of each of the three major classes. The first one, below, charts the class geography for the city proper.

The second interactive map below charts the class geography for the entire Atlanta metro.

The creative class, which includes people who work in science and technology, business and management, arts, culture, media, and entertainment, law and healthcare professions, make up 36.3 percent of the metro's workers (above the national average of 32.6 percent). They average $73,272 in wages in salaries, better than the national average of $70,890, and over $25,000 more than the average wages ($46,442) for the metro.

Across the metro area, the creative class makes up more than 40 percent of residents in 354 tracts (38.2 percent), and more than half in 196 (21.1 percent). There are 32 tracts (3.5 percent) where the creative class accounts for more than two thirds of residents.

Top 10 Creative Class Locations in the Atlanta Metro
Neighborhood (Census Tract #) Creative Class Share
Druid Hills (224.03) 82.9%
Sandy Springs (101.15) 78.5%
DeKalb County (216.04) 74.6%
Midtown/Georgia Tech, Atlanta (10.01) 74.6%
DeKalb County (217.03) 74.4%
Buckhead/Oakdale, Atlanta (97) 74.1%
Buckhead, Atlanta (91.01) 74.1%
Buckhead, Atlanta (98.01) 73.9%
Buckhead, Atlanta (90) 73.3%
Sandy Springs (101.08) 73.1%
Metro Average 36.3%

*Includes Census Tracts with more than 500 people

The table above shows the top 10 creative class locations (defined as Census tracts with more than 500 people) in the metro. The creative class makes up more than 70 percent of residents in each of them – almost double the metro average. Five of the top 10 creative class tracts are in the city of Atlanta proper. Four of those are in or around the Buckhead area. As Dunham-Jones describes them:

All are leafy, quite affluent, residential neighborhoods that Tom Wolfe, in his novel A Man in Full, famously described in terms of their 'swollen green-breasted lawns.' The new construction has mostly been amenity-rich, expensive high-rises along the retrofitted Peachtree Boulevard (formerly Peachtree Road), which attract empty nesters, celebrities, and highly-paid young professionals.

The other is the Midtown neighborhood that includes Georgia Tech. This area, Dunham-Jones adds, is intensifying and "getting more urban all the time, and includes student-oriented neighborhoods as well as young professionals drawn to relatively affordable, urban living and street-life."

The highest creative class concentration (more than 80 percent) is found in Druid Hills (which spans Atlanta and unincorporated DeKalb County), a bucolic late 19th and early 20th century planned community, which is home to both Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – one of the most affluent communities in the region.

Two others are entirely in DeKalb County, a racially diverse area that ranks as the second-most affluent county with a majority of African-American residents in the country. According to Dunham-Jones, one of these tracts is in Decatur, a county seat that is connected to Atlanta by the MARTA heavy rail system, which has methodically revived its downtown into a lively gathering place and is known for its good schools and leafy neighborhoods. Catherine Ross, who directs Georgia Tech's Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development, adds that:

DeKalb County has focused on scale and walkability and integrated public transit and sustainability into its fabric. It has good schools and has attracted young professionals and families for these reasons. Its focus on quality of life as exemplified by the city of Decatur has won national citations for its complete streets policy. Its historical preservation, small retail enclaves and lively street life are all hallmarks.

Another tract is in Sandy Springs in northern Fulton County. Ross notes that "Professional, scientific, and management jobs are significant industry sectors in Sandy Springs." In 2000, residents working in this sector accounted for more than twice the percentage they do in the State of Georgia or United States as a whole. And family incomes in Sandy Springs average more than $150,000. A mix of upscale residential neighborhoods and sprawling malls and ≠office buildings, Sandy Springs officially incorporated in 2005. It too is connected to Atlanta by MARTA.  While it never had a proper downtown, Dunham-Jones point out that it is "retrofitting a former Target store site to anchor a proposed new city center."

The service class entails workers in low wage, low-skill occupations in the food service industry, retail sales, clerical and administrative positions and the like — some of the fastest growing job categories in the nation. The service class comprises 43.8 percent of Atlanta's workers, slightly less than the national average of 46.6 percent. Troublingly, they average $28,973 in wages and salaries, less than the national average of $30,597, and just 42 percent of the region's creative class workers. There are 165 tracts (17.8 percent) where more than half the residents are service class.

Top 10 Service Class Locations in the Atlanta Metro
Neighborhood (Census Tract #) Service Class Share
West End, Atlanta (38) 78.3%
West End, Atlanta (23) 76.9%
West End, Atlanta (41) 68.9%
Adamsville/Cascade Heights, Atlanta (78.07) 68.6%
College Park (402.03) 68.5%
Adamsville/Cascade Heights, Atlanta (78.08) 67.5%
Vine City, Atlanta (118) 67.2%
College Park (106.04) 66.8%
Lakewood Heights, Atlanta (55.02) 66.1%
Union City (105.12) 65.2%
Metro Average 43.8%

*Includes Census Tracts with more than 500 people

As the table above shows, seven of the top 10 leading service class locations are located within Atlanta's city limits. Two are in College Park and one is in Union City, in the southeast perimeter of the metro; these are 70 to 80 percent African American. Some of these tracts are filled with new construction that was sold with sub-prime loans that have subsequently defaulted. Atlanta was singled out in the national news for its high percentage of minority homebuyers who were targeted for subprime loans – which seems to have been especially prevalent South of Route 20.

Top 10 Working Class Locations in the Atlanta Metro
Neighborhood (Census Tract #) Working Class Share
Chamblee (212.04) 65.4%
DeKalb County (214.09) 60.3%
Rockdale County (602.01) 54.4%
Norcross (503.19) 53.8%
Winder (1802.03) 53.4%
Forest Park (403.02) 52.2%
Gwinnett County (504.18) 51.2%
Forest Park (403.07) 50.3%
Norcross (503.20) 49.7%
Gwinnett County (503.06) 48.9%
Metro Average 19.8%

*Includes Census Tracts with more than 500 people

The working class includes workers who work in factory jobs as well as those in transportation and construction. It comprises 19.8 percent of the region's workers (slightly lower than the national average of 20.5 percent), who average $35,961 in wages and salaries, just 49 percent of what the metro's creative class workers make. The working class, which makes up more than half of all residents, is less than one percent of the metro's tracts. Conversely, the working class makes up less than 10 percent of residents in nearly one in four tracts, and less than a 5 percent share in eight percent of tracts.

None of the top 10 working class districts are located in Atlanta proper. Two are in Forest Park, roughly nine or 10 miles south of the city, a largely minority (African-American and Hispanic) town where some 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Another is in Chamblee, which was home to a GM plant. According to Dunham-Jones, before the economic crisis struck, "very high numbers of immigrant day laborers lived there working construction jobs." She adds that, "several other places on this list are also home to many new immigrants – almost all of whom settle in Atlanta's suburbs, not the city proper."

Manufacturing has been being pushed out towards the metro's periphery for some time, according to Dunham-Jones:

Down near the airport, Atlanta lost a major Ford manufacturing plant in 2006. It is being redeveloped as 'Aerotropolis,' with Porsche as the first tenant. In 2008 or so, a major GM plant closed where Route 85 meets Route 285 – and it is now the subject of many mixed-use redevelopment plans. About the same time, Kia broke ground on a major plant in LaGrange/West Point, southwest of Griffin. It opened in 2010 and is likely to be drawing workers from those blue areas.

Atlanta's class divide is pronounced. Similar to greater Washington, D.C., the line of demarcation between the classes in the city cuts across a sharply defined east-west axis. The metro area looks more like a cell, with the creative class nucleus centered in the city proper, the service class surrounding it, and the working class pushed way out to the periphery.  

I will continue to track this new geography of class segregation in the coming weeks. Next week: Miami.

Prior posts in this series:

All maps by MPI's Zara Matheson.

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

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